Flashback: Comedy maestro Jay Leno delivers emotionally charged goodbye as ‘Tonight Show’ host
A top rated, decidedly less depressing late night era drew to a close on Thursday, February 6, 2014, when Jay Leno gracefully handed the keys of The Tonight Show over to Jimmy Fallon. Watched by a staggering 14.6 million viewers, the evening included announced guests Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks book-ended by numerous surprise appearances from the likes of President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Carol Burnett, and Sheryl Crow.
Leno waited until Brooks delivered his signature piano ballad “The Dance” before addressing his attentive audience in an emotionally charged three-minute speech. After a commercial break, a framed photo of the comedian’s trademark blue denim shirt with the number “22” emblazoned in bold signaled his closing remarks.
Clarifying why Kevin Eubanks was not present — the former Tonight Show musical director and lead guitarist of 18 years was touring in France — the lone host took a deep breath and warned viewers, “Boy, this is a hard part.”
Notably, the comedy maestro uncharacteristically lost his composure repeatedly in front of the camera, all the more remarkable considering his largely cool disposition when he prematurely vacated his post five years earlier. Not acclimated to speaking seriously without bursting into a patented joke, Leno fidgeted uncomfortably and attempted to quell oncoming emotions by grabbing the wood paneled desk and clasping his hands forcefully together. It was no use. Leno’s voice cracked as tears flowed near instantaneously.
Looking every bit his 63 years and then some due to the stressful last week preparations, the raconteur first thanked his loyal viewers, admitting that “we wouldn’t be on the air without you.” Shaking his head in disbelief that he was being pushed out of his lifelong dream job for a younger — read cooler — demographic, Leno continued, “This has been the greatest 22 years of my life” to loud applause.
Hands down, the most touching moments came when the comedian discussed the painful one-two punch of losing his mother and father just as The Tonight Show was struggling against possible cancellation in the early ’90s. After big brother Patrick passed away in 2002, Leno revealed that his family was largely gone, stating that “the folks here became my family. Consequently when they went through rough times, I tried to be there for them. The last time we left this show — we had the 64 children that were born among all our staffers that married. That was a great moment.”
From the lighting and audio people to the talented writers, the comedian maintained the show’s wildly popular success was a team effort, unequivocally putting to rest the stigma held by detractors that he is a phony, cold-hearted company drone with little empathy.
And what about the rampant gossip following Leno’s initial foray away from his coveted late night gig in 2009 for Conan O’Brien’s misunderstood nine-month tenure? “When people say to me, ‘Hey why didn’t you go to ABC or Fox?’ I didn’t know anybody over there. These are the only people I’ve ever known.”
As for future eager to please Tonight Show puppy dog ringmaster Jimmy Fallon, Leno methodically gritted his teeth and offered some encouraging words. “I’m real excited for Jimmy,” revealed Leno. “It’s fun to kind of be the old guy and sit back and see where the next generation takes this great institution… but it really is time to go and hand it off to the next guy” [As of this writing, Leno has guested five times on Fallon’s viral video driven, ratings behemoth telecast from 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City].
Quoting Johnny Carson, an icon who famously preferred perennial rival David Letterman, Leno graciously called his predecessor “the greatest guy to ever do this job.” He closed by saying, “I bid you all a heartfelt goodbye.” Heaving a huge sigh of relief, the master funnyman expertly lightened the mood. “Now that I brought the room down — hey Garth — you got anything to liven this party up?,” exulted Leno. Waiting nearby, Brooks complied with gusto, breaking out the beer buddy anthem “Friends in Low Places.”
Leno’s farewell is destined to go down as one of the most poignant, must-see moments in pop culture history. Sure, in a perfect world it would have been honorable if NBC had let the comedian, a bona fide workaholic, finish his network run on Friday instead of being relegated between the Super Bowl and the kick-off of the ballyhooed Winter Olympics. That’s business for you.
The host of an astonishing 4,610 episodes over a 22-year period — not counting his approximate 333 episode stint beginning in September 1986 as permanent guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson or 95 episodes of the doomed Jay Leno Show in fall 2009 — Leno actually hosted more episodes than his brilliant predecessor (4531) in a shorter time span. The Guinness Book of World Records may come a-callin’.
Trending on social media throughout the following day clearly explained the 14.6 million viewers who caught Leno’s heart-tugging sign-off. Aided by opening coverage of the Winter Olympics, it was the comedian’s biggest audience since a 1998 show with guest Jerry Seinfeld that aired shortly after the Seinfeld finale. The numbers are significantly greater than his 11.9 million premature farewell in 2009. While nowhere in the range of Mr. Carson’s final telecast in May 1992 — an astronomical 42 million viewers admittedly earned in a non-saturated television atmosphere — Leno nevertheless soundly defeated his late night competitors.
With CNBC’s Jay Leno’s Garage and a perpetual list of stand-up dates on the horizon — an official website is sorely needed as it is maddening pinpointing Leno’s complete itinerary — he has no intentions of developing mold within his joke arsenal although he could very well still be experiencing a bit of late night comedy withdrawal. Wily like a fox, the entertainer’s saga is far from over. A hearty thanks for the memories, Mr. Leno.
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Further Reading: Elvis Presley and Johnny Carson were two kings in their respective fields who admired each other’s work immensely. However, Presley swore off watching The Tonight Show on the evening of his 40th birthday after Carson supposedly uttered a “fat and forty” joke in his nightly monologue. Subsequent retellings of the episode by members of Presley’s Memphis Mafia have painted Carson in a negative light. But did the King of Late Night actually say those words over 40 years ago? A viewing of the original televised clip and accompanying Tonight Show transcript presents stone cold evidence that will lay the claim to rest. Investigate “What Johnny Carson Really Said About Elvis…” for the complete lowdown.
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